The Etrog: Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil
The etrog, which is now the centerpiece of the four species, is not mentioned explicitly in the Torah, but is an interpretation of the phrase “the fruit of the hadar tree.”
ויקרא כג:מ וּלְקַחְתֶּם לָכֶם בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר כַּפֹּת תְּמָרִים וַעֲנַף עֵץ עָבֹת וְעַרְבֵי נָחַל וּשְׂמַחְתֶּם לִפְנֵי י־הוה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם שִׁבְעַת יָמִים:
Lev 23:40 On the first day you shall take for yourselves the fruit of a hadar tree, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before YHWH your God for seven days.
Hadar—“splendid, majestic, glorious”—is not a botanical term but an aesthetic attribute especially associated with nobility and kingship. It is not clear whether hadar refers to the fruit or the tree. The Septuagint assumes the former, “beautiful (or “ripe”) fruit of the tree” (“καρπὸν ξύλου ὡραῖον), while many modern commentators assume the latter:
- NRSV: “the fruit of the majestic trees”;
- Richard Elliott Friedman: “the fruit of appealing trees”;
- Everett Fox: “the fruit of the beautiful trees”;
- Robert Alter: “the fruit of the stately tree.”
Could we then take a beautiful pomegranate to fulfill the mitzvah? David Moster suggests that the pri ‘etz hadar once referred to fruit that ripened in the fall: grapes, olives, figs, dates, or pomegranates. When Sukkot was primarily a fall harvest festival, these fruits might have been taken. But by the late Second Temple Period, when the holiday became more temple-centered, the fruit became exclusively identified as the etrog (citron), the Persian wādrang or “golden apple,” which is beautiful, and fragrant, but essentially inedible.
The Rabbinic Tradition
The earliest textual evidence for the etrog identification appears in Josephus, 37–ca. 100 C.E., who refers to it either as “the fruit of the persea” or “the citron.” The Mishnah, late 2nd cent. C.E., also understands the term as an etrog (m. Sukkah 3:4–7), as does the tannaitic-period Aramaic Targum Onkelos, translating pri ‘etz hadar as פֵּירֵי אִילָנָא אֶתְּרוֹגִין “fruits of the etrog tree.”
The Babylonian Talmud offers several homiletic proofs for why the citron is meant. For example, the 4th generation Palestinian Amora, Rabbi Abahu, suggests:
בבלי סוכה לה. [הספריה הבריטית 400] ר' אבהו או' אל תיקרי הדר אלא הדר דבר הדר באילנו משנה לשנה.
b. Sukkah 35a Rabbi Abahu says: “Do not read hadar [majestic] but ha-dar [that dwells], for it is a thing that dwells on its tree from year to year.”
Indeed, the citron is deciduous in the Land of Israel—the leaves fall, but the fruit can sometimes hang on from season to season. Earlier in the pericope, however, the Talmud suggests a more fanciful quality of the etrog:
בבלי סוכה לה. [הספריה הבריטית 400] תנו רבנן פרי עץ הדר עץ שטעם עצו ופריו שוה ואיזה זה הוי אומ' זה אתרוג.
b. Sukkah 35a It was taught: “The fruit of a majestic tree”—whose bark and fruit have the same taste, and which is that? It should be said that it is the citron.
In describing the etrog fruit as having the same taste as the tree, I don’t think the Talmud is recommending new recipes for Sukkot. We do not normally cook up etrog bark stew!. The Talmud then challenges this unique characteristic of citrons, since peppercorns also have this property:
ונימא פילפלין דתניא ר' מאיר או' ממשמע שנ' ונטעתם [כל עץ מאכל] איני יודע שעץ מאכל הוא אלא מה ת'ל' עץ מאכל עץ שטעם עצו ופריו שוה ואי זה זה זה פילפלין
But let us say it is the peppercorn? For it was taught: “Rabbi Meir says: “It is implied, for it says ‘and you plant [fruit trees]” (Lev 19:23)—did I not already know that [a law about fruit dealt specifically with] fruit trees?! Rather, what does the word ‘tree’ come to teach you? That the taste of the tree and the fruit is the same, and which is that? It is the peppercorn [tree].”
The Talmud then counters that a citron is majestic, but a single peppercorn is not:
התם משום דלא איפשר, היכי ליעביד לינקוט חדא חדא לא מינכרא לקיחתה נינקוט תרתי ותלת פירי אחד אמ' רחמ' ולא שנים ושלשה פירות הילכך לא איפשר
There [in Leviticus we say it is a citron] because it is not possible [for it to be a peppercorn]. How would it be done? Taking one peppercorn at a time would be unrecognizable. Taking two or three fruits [might do it, but] God [in the verse] says “one” (=a fruit), not two or three fruits, therefore it is impossible [that it refers to a peppercorn and must then refer to the citron].
The sages exclude the option of the peppercorn because you can’t take one pepper corn (too small!), while the verse (Lev 23:40) implies taking up just one fruit large enough to shake.
The Original Trees of Creation
The idea that the tree tastes like its fruit alludes to an ancient midrashic motif about the original trees of creation which were supposed to grow to taste like their respective fruits. On the third, day, God commands the earth:
בראשית א:יא ...תַּדְשֵׁא הָאָרֶץ דֶּשֶׁא עֵשֶׂב מַזְרִיעַ זֶרַע עֵץ פְּרִי עֹשֶׂה פְּרִי לְמִינוֹ אֲשֶׁר זַרְעוֹ בוֹ עַל הָאָרֶץ וַיְהִי כֵן.
Gen 1:11 …“Sprout forth vegetation: grasses yielding seed [i.e. grains] and fruit trees, yielding fruit each according to its kind, in which is its seed, upon the land.” And it was so.
But when the earth brings forth its fruit, it does not include “fruit trees” but only “trees that make fruit”:
בראשית א:יב וַתּוֹצֵא הָאָרֶץ דֶּשֶׁא עֵשֶׂב מַזְרִיעַ זֶרַע לְמִינֵהוּ וְעֵץ עֹשֶׂה פְּרִי אֲשֶׁר זַרְעוֹ בוֹ לְמִינֵהוּ...
Gen 1:12 So the land sprouted forth vegetation: grasses yielding seed according to its kind, trees that yield fruit, in which is its seed, according to its kind…
In Genesis Rabbah (mid-first millennium C.E.), Rabbi Judah ben Rabbi Shalom picks up on this difference and uses it to explain that when God curses the ground following Adam’s sin (Gen 3:17–18), the ground was also punished for its own sin:
בראשית רבה ה:ט שֶׁעָבְרָה עַל הַצִּוּוּי, שֶׁכָּךְ אָמַר לָהּ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, "תַּדְשֵׁא הָאָרֶץ דֶּשֶׁא וגו' [עֵץ פְּרִי עֹשֶׂה פְּרִי לְמִינוֹ]" ,(בר' א:יא) מַה הַפְּרִי נֶאֱכָל אַף הָעֵץ נֶאֱכָל, וְהִיא לֹא עָשְׂתָה כֵן, אֶלָּא "וַתּוֹצֵא הָאָרֶץ דֶּשֶׁא וגו' [וְעֵץ עֹשֶׂה פְּרִי]" (שם יב) הַפְּרִי נֶאֱכָל וְהָעֵץ אֵינוֹ נֶאֱכָל.
Gen. Rab. 5:9 For it [the ground] violated the command, for the Blessed Holy One said to it: “let the earth bring forth grass, etc. [fruit trees which make fruit according to its kind]” (Gen. 1:11)—Just as the fruit is edible so should be the tree. But it did not do this, rather “the land brought forth grass… [trees that make fruit]” (v. 12)—the fruit is edible but the tree is inedible.
Apparently, however, the citron did fulfill the divine command (as did the peppercorn according to Rabbi Meir).
The Significance of the Etrog Tree Tasting Like Its Fruit
What is intimated by the idea of the tree and fruit both having the same taste is a conceptual metaphor, that the process coheres with the final product: both taste the same and bear the same significance (in Hebrew טעם has both meanings), the means consonant with the end, the process not subordinate to the goal.
The etrog, therefore, as the only tree with these properties is the ultimate “tree of integrity,” the perfect pristine fruit. Indeed, among other options, Genesis Rabbah identifies the etrog with the desirable fruit led to the primordial sin of Adam and Eve:
בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) טו ר' אבא דעכו אמר אתרוג היה הה"ד ותרא האשה כי טוב העץ למאכל וגו' (בראשית ג:ו) אמרתה צא וראה אי זהו אילן עיצו נאכל כפיריו, ואין את מוצא אלא אתרוג.
Gen Rab 15:7 R. Abba of Acco said: “It was the citron. That is what it means (Gen 3:6): ‘The woman say that the tree was good to eat…’” Say go, look, and see, what tree is it whose bark is edible like its fruit? You find only the citron.
The verse says the tree was good to eat, not the fruit. As the etrog is the one tree that followed God’s command, only it can be properly considered as “good to eat.” The citron was the only tree exempt from the curse of the earth; it alone retained this pre-lapsarian quality, which was God’s original plan for trees.
Ramban: The Majestic and Desirable Tree
Ramban (R. Moses Nahmanides, ca. 1195–1270) draws on this midrashic tradition. He begins with another inter-linguistic pun to explain that hadar simply means ḥemdah חמדה, “desirable,” or etrog in Aramaic, from the root רגג: “to desire, to covet, to yearn for.”
Ramban then offers a kabbalistic interpretation of the sin of Eve’s gazing at the citron tree:
...ועל דרך האמת, "פרי עץ הדר" הוא הפרי שבו רוב התאוה, ובו חטא אדם הראשון, שנאמר (בראשית ג ו) ותרא האשה כי טוב העץ למאכל וכי תאוה הוא לעינים ונחמד העץ להשכיל ותקח מפריו ותאכל,
…By way of the Truth (esoteric teaching of the Kabbalah), the “fruit of the beautiful tree [pri ‘etz hadar]” implies the most desirable tree, the one by which the first human sinned, as it says: “When the woman saw that the tree was good to eat and delight to the eyes and desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate...” (3:6).
In Ramban’s reading, Eve’s gazing at the tree of knowledge even before she ate of it was deeply problematic, since “desirable to the eyes” led to coveting what was forbidden to eat:
בראשית ג:ו וַתֵּרֶא הָאִשָּׁה כִּי טוֹב הָעֵץ לְמַאֲכָל וְכִי תַאֲוָה הוּא לָעֵינַיִם וְנֶחְמָד הָעֵץ לְהַשְׂכִּיל וַתִּקַּח מִפִּרְיוֹ וַתֹּאכַל וַתִּתֵּן גַּם לְאִישָׁהּ עִמָּהּ וַיֹּאכַל:
Gen 3:6 The woman saw that the tree was good for eating, and that it desirable to the eyes, and that the tree was coveted to make one wise. She took of its fruit and she ate, and she also gave it to her husband with her, and he ate.
When Eve first saw the external aspect of the tree, after the Serpent’s seductive words, it suddenly held secrets it never had before. First, its beauty struck her—not the beauty of the fruit, but the promises of the tree itself, “and she saw the tree was good.” Further, in her gaze it is the tree (not the fruit) that is desirable [תַאֲוָה] to the eyes, coveted [נֶחְמָד] by the mind to make one wise.
The ‘eating’ of the Tree of Knowledge begins as a visual not an oral experience. That is, a gap between the external and internal, the aesthetic beauty of the tree and the inner effect of its fruit is forged even before eating the fruit. The snake had promised,
בראשית ג:ד ...בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְכֶם מִמֶּנּוּ וְנִפְקְחוּ עֵינֵיכֶם וִהְיִיתֶם כֵּאלֹהִים יֹדְעֵי טוֹב וָרָע.
Gen 3:4 …On the Day that you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will become like divine beings knowing good and evil.
Well, her eyes were opened even before ingesting the fruit! Anticipating the (beneficial) consequences with her mind’s eye, she desires the tree even before tasting the fruit. Eve is the first true intellectual—the Hebrew Bible’s Prometheus (meaning “forethought” in Greek), taking the forbidden fruit only after thinking it through, just as that Titan stole fire from Mount Olympus as a gift for mankind.
From that moment onward, access to the knowledge of good and evil, or perhaps the acumen to discern between good and evil, would at best be partial, aspirational, and remain in the realm of desire. Immediately, the consequences of eating the fruit were felt as the need to cover up, Adam and Eve sewing loincloths for themselves out of fig leaves (Gen. 3:7).
The gap between the outer and inner reality widens, and we have lived the dance of shame, of covering-up, of masks ever since. Ironically, the integrity between the external and internal beauty of things was lost as a result of tasting that fruit from the “tree of integrity,” the etrog.
Taking the Etrog on Sukkot Repairs the Sin in the Garden of Eden
Ramban continues with a kabbalistic interpretation of why, on Sukkot, we are specifically commanded to take the etrog, along with the three other species:
והנה החטא בו לבדו, ואנחנו נרצה לפניו עם שאר המינים.
And the sin was in (taking) it (the etrog) alone, and we appease (God) (by taking it) with the other (three) species.
Taking the etrog along with the other three species constitutes a source of tikkun, an appeasement to God, for the sin in the Garden of Eden.
To understand this better, we should look at a famous midrash about the Four Species, which likens them to four different types of Jews—told to children in grade school and passed off as mere homiletics—which may undergird Ramban’s conception. The midrash begins that the citron represents the best Israelites, who learn Torah and practice good deeds:
ויקרא רבה (מרגליות) פרשה ל:יב ד"א פרי עץ הדר, אלו ישראל, מה אתרוג זה יש בו טעם ויש בו ריח כך ישראל יש בהם בני אדם שיש בהם תורה ויש בהם מעשים טובים.
Leviticus Rabbah 30:12 In another comment on the verse, “Take for yourselves…the fruit of the beautiful tree…” (Lev. 23:40), “the fruit of the trees [pri ‘etz hadar]” [the etrog] stands for a type of person in Israel: just as etrog has taste and aroma, so too Israel has those who have Torah and also good deeds.
Why is taste [טעם ta‘am] associated with Torah, and aroma [ריח reaḥ] with good deeds? We speak of ta‘amei mitzvot, the reasoning behind the precepts, and ta‘amei miqra, the cantillation marks over the letters of the Torah. The ta‘am carries the connotation meaning or the internal motivating principle—metaphorically that which would the fruit edible or digestible, capable of being internalized.
The aroma [ריח reaḥ], on the other hand, extends to others externally and leaves impressions in its wake, like perfume. That is, the effect of the person who does good deeds ripples through a community; the reputation of a generous benefactor [ba‘al ḥesed] spreads far and wide.
The etrog offers both the internal meaning, ta‘am, and external impact, reaḥ. This would be like a person who has internalized the teachings of the Torah so well that all of his or her intellectual endeavors would radiate out in kindness towards others. A rare personality indeed!
The midrash continues by explaining that the other three species also represent Israelites, but either with only Torah study, only good deeds, or neither:
כפות תמרים, אלו ישראל, מה התמרה הזו יש בה טעם ואין בה ריח כך הם ישראל יש בהם בני אדם שיש בהם תורה ואין בהם מעשים טובים.
“And the branches of palm trees” [kapot tamarim] also stand for a type of person in Israel: just as the palm tree taste (i.e. the edible fruit of the date) but no aroma, so Israel has people who have knowledge of Torah but no good deeds.
וענף עץ עבות, אלו ישראל, מה הדס זה יש בו ריח ואין בו טעם כך ישראל יש בהם בני אדם שיש בהם מעשים טובים ואין בהם תורה.
“And the boughs of leafy trees” [the hadas, or myrtle], also stand for a type in Israel: just as the myrtle has aroma but taste (i.e., no edible fruit), so Israel has those who do good deeds but have no Torah.
וערבי נחל, אילו ישראל, מה ערבה זו אין בה לא טעם ולא ריח כך הן ישראל יש בהן בני אדם שאין בהן לא תורה ולא מעשים טובים.
“And willows of the brook” [‘arava], stand for a type in Israel: just as the willow has neither taste nor aroma, so Israel have those who have neither Torah nor good deeds.
Having established the four types of Jews, we then learn that we are not looking only for the ideal, etrog, type, but that the only way that the etrog serves as an effective source atonement for Israel is if it acts in harmony with the other three:
ומה הקב"ה עושה להן, לאבדן אי איפשר, אלא אמ' הקב"ה יוקשרו כולן אגודה אחת והן מכפרים אילו על אילו.
What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do for them? It is impossible to destroy them, rather He said, “May all of them be bound together in one cluster, such they might atone for one another.”
The righteous person has true impact in the world only if he or she serves as a complement to the others. Perfection—having both Torah and good deeds, taste and aroma [ta‘am ve-reaḥ]—cannot be an end in itself. The command was not to take only the fruit of the hadar tree but all four species.
Repairing the World with the Etrog
In Ramban’s reading, the etrog—fruit of the most desirable tree—is the means by which we repair the sin in the Garden of Eden. We take a thing of beauty, hadar—the very fruit that had been a “delight to the eyes and desirable to make one wise,” when the outer trumped the inner and led Adam and Eve to disobey God’s command. And then we bring that fruit together with the three other species in fulfilling God’s command. We hold the etrog together with the less perfect, mottled and speckled specimens of nature’s fragility, and stand in community in the presence of God and say: See us! Hear us!
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Prof. Rav Rachel Adelman is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Boston’s Hebrew College, where she also received ordination. She holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is the author of The Return of the Repressed: Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer and the Pseudepigrapha (Brill 2009), based on her dissertation, and The Female Ruse: Women's Deception and Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield Phoenix, 2015), written under the auspices of the Women's Studies in Religion Program (WSRP) at Harvard. Adelman is now working on a new book, Daughters in Danger from the Hebrew Bible to Modern Midrash (forthcoming, Sheffield Phoenix Press). When she is not writing books, papers, or divrei Torah, it is poetry that flows from her pen.
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